GCI Equipper

The Omega and the Alpha

November marks the end of one worship year with Christ the King Sunday, and the beginning of another worship year with Advent.

The title of this article is a play on words. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end—and this month gives us the opportunity to celebrate with the end and work back to a celebration of the beginning. The worship calendar gives us constant reminders that all our worship centers on Jesus. We can’t make him the center of the center—he already is. The GCI worship calendar keeps us focused on him. So let’s start with the end.

Christ the King Sunday

 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15 NRSV)

We end the worship year with a celebration that everything we hope and pray for culminates in the establishment of the kingdom of God. This kingdom was determined before the foundation of the earth. Creation itself “awaits with eager longing” because it “will be set free from its bondage to decay.” (See Romans 8:19-23.) This is the when the Acts of the Apostles comes to fullness. This is the time every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. This is the time when there will be no more tears and no more death. This will be a time of full reconciliation with Father, Son and Spirit. This is when we can enjoy the fullness of our relationship with the Triune God.

This is a day we celebrate that the lame will walk again, the deaf will hear, the blind will see and the mute will be able to sing praises along with us. This is the day all Christ followers look forward to and pray will come soon. It’s a time of celebration.

Advent

The week after this celebration we begin the worship calendar all over again with Advent—four weeks looking forward to the incarnation, when God became one of us. It seems odd to celebrate the end right before celebrating the beginning, but there is wisdom in being reminded annually of the cycle of worship. With Advent, we are reminded how much we need the kingdom we just celebrated the previous week. The world is in despair and we need God’s kingdom. We live in darkness and we very much need the light that came into the world.

Advent reminds us of the long period of waiting. “I can’t wait for 2020 to end” has been a theme many have shared on social media. We are still amid a worldwide pandemic and waiting for Covid-19 to end. This year was full of protests and riots across the world. It was a year of an ugly election cycle in the U.S. and we won’t know the outcome even as this article comes online. Many have lost jobs and many others have lost family members due to the virus. It is no wonder there is a cry for the year to end. We desperately want some good news, and we get impatient with waiting.

How often do we start our prayers with, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and end up crying “How long, O Lord?” The scripture I quoted above tells us even creation groans in anticipation. The world is full of darkness; it has been since the fall. But we know the solution, and the solution has a name. Jesus is the light of the world. His way of life brings light and life to others. His command to love as he loves reminds us that we are to share the love and light of Jesus.

So while Advent is a time of waiting, we focus on some incredible themes that point to Christ—hope, peace, love, and joy. Many of our congregations incorporate the Advent candle as part of their worship service as a good reminder of what the season is all about. The center candle is the Christ candle, and it reminds us that Jesus is the center of all good things. As the light, he is the source of our hope, our peace, our love, and our joy.

Advent sermons typically start with the hope of Jesus’ return and ends with Mary hearing from Gabriel.

In the RCL sermons you will find the following four themes for Advent 2020.

  • November 29: The theme is “all passes away, mercy endures.” We are reminded to base our hope not on things of this world, but on Jesus. He tells us in Mark 13 that we will see the Son of Man descending. Don’t lose hope; Jesus will return. Check out Gospel Reverb for this week’s Advent theme.
  • December 6: The theme is “comfort in God’s faithfulness.” The RCL sermon focuses on three voices found in Isaiah 40. These voices remind us that no matter how bad things seem, our God is faithful to deliver. Jesus is the good shepherd.
  • December 13: The theme is “Jesus brings restoration and joy to all.” While the Christmas season brings great joy to some, to others it is a reminder how little they have. The sermon reminds us that the gospel of Jesus is good news for all—including the poor, the broken, and those mired in despair. He is our new beginning.
  • December 20: The theme is “God with us.” Here we look at Mary and her response to Gabriel’s announcement. God calls us to participate. That participation isn’t always easy, but God will never ask us to participate without his involvement, and nothing is impossible with him. He is and always will be with us.

In GCI our center is Jesus. Our worship calendar centers on Jesus. Our worship centers on Jesus. May God bless you as you prepare your congregation or fellowship group to celebrate the Omega and the Alpha by praising centering on the center – Jesus our Lord.

Praising God for the worship calendar,

Rick Shallenberger

 

“I Saw, I Heard, I Felt Jesus Today”

A healthy church worship service is centered around Jesus. He is the center of our gathering, preaching, sharing communion, and dismissal.

By Bill Hall, National Director, Canada

I recently started to read A Lay Preacher’s Guide: How to Craft a Faithful Sermon, by Karoline Lewis. (She is the associate professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota.)

In the introduction to her book Lewis makes the following statement about what a faithful sermon should accomplish:

Preaching assumes and then invites an actual encounter with God. How it creates an experience of God is the focus of this book. But first, the preacher has to believe that the Greeks were right when they pleaded, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). This is the very heart of a “good” sermon—that the listener can say, “Preacher, I saw, I heard, I felt Jesus today.” [i]

While her book specifically addresses the sermon given during a church service, shouldn’t we ask if the same is true for the entirety of a Sunday service? How often can an attendee say, “I saw, I heard, I felt Jesus today”?

That is the goal of every worship service in a healthy church.

Just like a faithful sermon takes time and planning, a good worship service should be crafted in a thoughtful and Jesus-centered manner.

In fact, a good worship service has four aspects that give balance to our encounter with the Triune God during our community assembling.

The first aspect can be termed Gather.

How do we come together to, in a sense, worship at the foot of God’s throne? Traditionally in the church this gathering is accomplished by singing hymns of praise to Jesus and the Father. There is active participation as we join those living creatures pictured before the throne of God saying: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty who was, and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8 NRSV). Singing brings the community of faith together in our active worship.

The second aspect of a balanced service is the Word.

While we acknowledge that Jesus is the living Word of the Triune God, the written Word needs to be the center of any church service. This includes the reading of scriptures such as those outlined in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). We start with the reading of the Psalm, progressing to other related scriptures and finally a reading of the scripture passage on which the sermon is based.

Again, the question to ask is: in our selection of passages and our expounding of the Word—the sermon—are we instruments for the listeners to “see Jesus”? In addition, as we study and share the biblical passages, are we allowing the Spirit to speak to us through the written word?

The third aspect of a balanced service is Table.

Hopefully, by now you see that active participation is a recurring theme to the four aspects of a balanced service. Just like our personal relationship with the Triune God is essential for the individual, our services should reflect how we interact with each other and God in a communal setting.

Not only do we respond with our worship offerings, we also come to the table to participate in communion. The very essence of who we are as a Christian community is wrapped up in the bread and wine that we take. In the meal, we celebrate the incarnation, the risen Lord and our involvement with him and with each other.

The final aspect of a balanced service is the Dismissal.

Our participation with our Triune God doesn’t end when we walk out the doors of our meeting place. In the benediction we are reminded of our response, which is to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) by loving others as Jesus loves us. It is our role to be witnesses (Acts 2:32) to all around us, regarding what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.

Finally, when one walks out the door, we hope the participant can say, “the Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5), or as Lewis writes, “Preacher, I saw, I heard, I felt Jesus today.”

[i] Karoline M. Lewis, A Lay Preacher’s Guide: How to Craft a Faithful Sermon (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020), xiii.

Exalt, Encounter and Respond in Worship

Worship leaders have the blessing/responsibility to lead us in joining the heavenly hosts in worship. Here are three things to keep in mind.

By Dr. Kathleen Horwood, Business Manager for GCI Canada and Pastor for Saskatoon.

From Genesis to Revelation, we see that God’s people have been worshippers. We worship God for his faithfulness, his protection, his provision, his love. We worship because he is Father, Son and Spirit. Worship has never been confined to gatherings in the temple or church gathering. Rather, it can—and should—occur from the rising of the sun to the setting. Our Sunday gatherings, however, provide a time when God’s people can gather to worship him in concert with “our psalms, hymns, spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19b)—all rising to the throne of grace to honor our Lord.

Worship services have been planned with a variety of forms or what is commonly referred to as the “order of service.” Bill Hall, Canada National Director, wrote on the general pattern of Gather, Word, Table, Dismissal. Bob Kauflin in his book Worship Matters offers a somewhat different progression, or expression for the worship leader to think about as he or she prepares for the Sunday service—Exalt, Encounter, and Respond.[1]­ Each expression allows the worshipping community to enter into the presence of the Lord. Let’s look at each one.

Exalt

As a worship leader, I prefer to set a theme for worship that will carry through each part. A theme is more easily established when we are in the high seasons of the liturgical calendar—Advent, Christmas, Easter Preparation, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension. Recently, for example, the theme I centered on from the RCL is that God calls us to love one another. In the exaltation, the service began with the words of Jesus that reflected his love for us and his commandment to love each other. Our songs reflected God’s love towards us – “The Power of his Love” – and then our response to his love was offered through “My Jesus I Love Thee.”

The Exaltation of our Lord can be expressed with reverence and creativity. God is the God who issues invitations to his people to come into his presence through the invitational words “come,” “seek,” or “worship and bow down.” The worship leader can bring these words of invitation forward in a variety of ways. God’s Word can be read followed by a time of silence, a responsive or unison scripture reading or a short chorus. The main idea here is that God invites us into his presence, and we acknowledge this wonderful gift by focusing on God and giving him the honor and glory that belongs to him alone.

Following this, many find it helpful to enter a time of prayer. This can focus on thanksgiving, confession (which should include words of assurance that our sins are forgiven) and prayers of intercession. This writer finds it helpful to allow for times of silence so one can be open to hear God responding to our heart.

Encounter

A natural flow from exalting God is for his people to encounter him through his Word. Just as there are the invitational words to enter God’s presence, so there are various calls to let the Word of God dwell in us richly. The proclamation of the Word in scripture is given through the words listen, hear, or incline – “listen to his voice’ (Deut. 30:2), hear his voice (Deut. 31:13) and the Psalmist tells us to “incline [or turn] my heart toward your statutes” (Psalm 119:36). When Jesus was teaching the parable of the sower, he commends his audience – he who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:9, 23)

The proclamation of God’s Word is powerful, and all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). The hearing of God’s Word gives opportune time to listen and to receive God’s Word, to invite God to touch and move through every fibre of our being. It can be that moment when, through the Holy Spirit, God brings a word of encouragement, challenge, conviction or strength to our hearts.

As in our time of exaltation, which can be presented in different forms, so too the Word of God can be brought forth in meaningful ways. A drama presentation can enrich the Word, and this can be done as an introduction to a message or draw the message to a conclusion.

Another avenue that I have used, especially during Lent and Christmas, is to intersperse the spoken word with song.  For example, in a Good Friday service going through Mark’s Gospel of the events of Friday, I used the pattern of: a) Scripture reading, b) meditation or devotional thought around the particular scripture, followed by c) a song or chorus.

Respond

The closing portion of our worship is when we are called to respond to the Word of God that has just been proclaimed. Although we typically conclude our corporate worship with a song followed by a benediction, our response goes further than embracing these concluding elements. The worship of our Lord is our daily response to his love and faithfulness, his greatness and majesty. As we walk through each hour of each day, we can sing about God’s amazing love, we can pray in thanksgiving for his constant presence, we can be still and know that he is God (Psalm 46:10).

Everything I’ve written up to this point is based on the assumption that the planning of service is undergirded with prayer. If we don’t prepare our hearts and invoke God’s guidance and invitation to the Holy Spirit to lead us, then we can hardly expect to hear the Holy Spirit in our corporate gathering of worship.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come before him.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
(1 Chronicles 16:28)

[1] Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters – Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton: Crossway 2008), 114.

PowerPoint Pointers

If you are using PowerPoint for your worship service, here are a number of tips to make things run smoothly.

By Tim Sitterley, U.S. Regional Director, West

In the not-too-distant past, movies were delivered to theaters on large rolls of film. The skill of the projectionist was to sync the film so that when one reel ran out on one projector, the next reel was already playing on the next projector. If they did their job, well the audience seated below was never aware of the reel change.

Several years ago, I was in a theater watching the major motion picture Midway. It was the height of one of the battle scenes. Planes were flying in and out of the screen. Bombs were exploding. Everyone was on the edge of their seats. And the screen went white. The projectionist had missed his cue. He frantically brought the next reel online to the sound of boos and somewhat inappropriate language. The movie resumed, but the built-up tension was gone, and the result was a less-than desirable experience.

Ask yourself how often you have witnessed something similar during a worship service. The Holy Spirit was clearly moving in the congregation. The song selection was inspired and on point, and everyone was on the same procession into the throne room of God. And the PowerPoint operator couldn’t find the next slide. Or the sound person failed to unmute a mic. Or there was feedback. And just like that, the moment was gone.

In my last article I introduced a number of presentation programs that would allow a congregation to improve their weekly worship experience. But to be honest, HOW you put things up on a screen or large screen TV is only half the battle. WHAT you put on that screen, and how you weave the service together is the other half. I’m not going to address the sound element of worship software, other than to encourage sound-board operators to stop muting everything and then forgetting to unmute at critical moments of the service. But I will address the visual presentation.

If you have purchased (or are using a free version) of any of the presentation software I discussed in the previous article, then you have a number of tools at the ready. You can change slides in real-time. You can drop a scripture into the presentation in a matter of seconds. You can place video loops behind the words of your songs. If you have an integrated camera, you can even place the words over a live image of the worship leader (although I’m not sure why you would want to unless you are in an auditorium and have a congregation of over a thousand). But to be practical, while everything I mention here applies to all-in-one presentation programs, I’m going to use what most of our congregations use…PowerPoint…as the basis for what I suggest.

I must be honest and tell you I have a love/hate relationship with PowerPoint. I love the fact that PowerPoint is strong enough to allow you to create presentations that rival expensive programs like MediaShout. (Yes, you can loop a video behind an entire lyric presentation if you are willing to work at it.) What I hate is the fact that there is a learning curve in PowerPoint that most of us won’t climb, and because of that, worship services and sermon slides often look like middle-school history presentations. So let me offer some suggestions to help you change that.

First, encapsulate your entire worship service in one file. Your hope avenue team member in charge of the ministry of illumination should not have to switch back and forth between multiple presentations during a worship service. Pastors, this means getting your sermon slides to your computer operator BEFORE Sunday morning so they can embed and test the files. If you are playing videos, they should be embedded in the presentation, and the mp4 file needs to be kept in the same folder as the presentation file. From the time the countdown video or call-to-worship starts till the slide inviting everyone to stay for coffee and munchies, you are in one presentation file—a file that was tested beforehand, I might add.

As you are creating your presentation, consider theme consistency and continuity. Anyone who has attended a recent GCI event has seen the denominational branding in every template used during the various presentations. These branded templates are available from the Home Office and will help tie your worship service to your branded (hopefully) website. Seasonal themes are also a great idea. How great would it be if all your slide templates during the Advent season matched from week to week? And speaking of templates, Microsoft offers a wide array of PowerPoint templates. While most have been created for the business world, and don’t work that well in a worship setting, there are several templates you can use.

This goes for backgrounds, both static and moving. The options for inspiring and relevant imagery are virtually endless. There are so many options that it is tempting to overkill your presentation with pretty pictures. If the song is saying “Holy Spirit You Are Welcome Here,” you don’t need a different picture of a dove on every lyric slide. (As to whether the Holy Spirit needs to be given a welcome message is a different topic.) You also want to make sure the images you choose don’t make it too difficult to read the lyrics or scripture passages. And if you are using looped video backgrounds, make sure they loop properly, and don’t just snap back to the beginning of the video every fifteen seconds. It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that background videos should not be more interesting than what they are behind—like the lyrics to a song of praise.

And finally, if you are playing full videos during your worship service (whether they be music videos with lyrics or videos like “Speaking of Life”) please, please, insert them into the presentation. Few things are more jarring than watching someone open and close videos in a media player. Links—particularly to online files—don’t always work. And just a tip: When you insert a video into a slide, you have the option box to play the video full screen. Depending on the computer, PowerPoint does not always immediately open to full screen, so to avoid the flash of white screen, simply enlarge the video to fit the slide when inserting. If the video is not in a wide-screen format, place a black background behind it.

So where do you get all these wonderful and inspirational templates, backgrounds and video loops? If you have a purchased worship presentation program, it came with hundreds of files. Even the free programs come with a library of images and templates. But if you are using PowerPoint, here are a few options among the dozens out there to consider.

www.freechurchmedia.com – Yes, it’s free, but they are not offended by donations

www.churchmotiongraphics.com – a great mix of free and paid resources

www.sermonspice.com – a pay for what you download site with excellent content

www.sermoncentral.com – a monthly subscription

www.visualmedia.com – ranges free to hundreds of dollars, but they do have it all

Hopefully this will give you options to not only enhance the visual experience of those who worship with you each week, but also take away some of the jarring start and stop occurrences that interrupt that worship experience. Just remember that the person operating the computer has as much influence over the worship as the worship leader (maybe even more). Investing the time in advance to perfect their understanding of the software, and then remaining attentive, even when everyone else is lost in worship, is all part of the calling. It is a calling no less worthy than that of a musician or singer.

GCI Church Hack: Avenue Job Descriptions

The impact of the pandemic has touched every area of our lives, including the life of the church. Because of Jesus’ call to love our neighbors well, we have found innovative ways to safely worship together and developed new policies to keep one another safe. This means that there are new ways to serve within our ministry teams. A GCI best practice is to have job descriptions for every ministry worker for clear expectations and training. Click on the link to explore the new roles that might be a good fit for your congregation.

GCI Church Hack: Types of Mentors

As all GCI churches are making efforts toward better church health, one key focus across all avenues is the development of new leaders. Through mentoring relationships, ministry leaders are developed and the lives of both mentor and mentee are enriched. Check out this month’s Church Hack about the mentoring relationship.

GCI Creative Community Christmas Ideas

GCI Creative Christmas Ideas

As we approach Advent and Christmas many of our Hope Avenue leaders are thinking about creative ways to celebrate the season while still holding digital services.  Check out the ideas below generated by our  GCI Creative Community Facebook Page . Drop a comment below with any additional ideas, and join the Facebook group to share and garner tips, hacks, and new ideas.

Christmas Service ideas:

  • Wear the holiday on your sleeves: Ask members to wear Christmas sweaters and other holiday gear. If you’re using Zoom snap a pic of the group.
  • Deck your halls: incorporate Advent candle lighting into your digital service, and then have a manger scene or other Christmas symbols in the background for your Christmas service.
    • You could even have different members create a different “set” with Christmas symbols in their homes for different parts of the service (ex. candle lighting, communion, scripture reading, etc.)
  • Chrismas caroling: pre-record parts of Christmas Carols from different families and combine it into a medley or just one song.
    • use creative instruments like maybe spoons and pots to add some humor.

Hope Avenue Champion w/ George Strub

Video Transcript

“The Hope Avenue Champion is all about what happens within the four walls (of the church). Essentially from the parking lot to the pew, and back. The focus is to give hope to the people who come through the door. People that come to church are wanting to have some form of hope in their lives. And our God is a God of hope!” -George Strub, Hope Avenue Champion
Main Points:
  • What is the role of the Hope Avenue Champion & why does the role matter? (1:00)
  • What does a typical week look like for a Hope Avenue Champion? (4:55)
  • How do you build a team, and what does collaboration look like in the Hope Avenue? (7:55)
  • What does the relationship between the pastor and the Hope Avenue Champion look like? (10:58)
  • What are some key steps every Hope Avenue Champion should consider doing? (14:17)
Resources:
  • Team Based Pastor Led– learn about the Avenues in our Team Based – Pastor Led model
  • Hope Avenue Video– A presentation of the Hope Avenue during the 2019 Regional Celebrations.
  • Church = Hope – An article from Equipper drawing the connection between hope and the Sunday Service.

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews George Strub, who serves as the Hope Avenue Champion in Grace Communion Big Sandy. Together they discuss the role of the Hope Avenue Champion within the GCI Team Based – Pastor Led model.

“The Hope Avenue Champion is all about what happens within the four walls (of the church). Essentially from the parking lot to the pew, and back. The focus is to give hope to the people who come through the door. People that come to church are wanting to have some form of hope in their lives. And our God is a God of hope!”
-George Strub, Hope Avenue Champion

Main Points:

  • What is the role of the Hope Avenue Champion & why does the role matter? (1:00)
  • What does a typical week look like for a Hope Avenue Champion? (4:55)
  • How do you build a team, and what does collaboration look like in the Hope Avenue? (7:55)
  • What does the relationship between the pastor and the Hope Avenue Champion look like? (10:58)
  • What are some key steps every Hope Avenue Champion should consider doing? (14:17)

Resources:

  • Team Based Pastor Led– learn about the Avenues in our Team Based – Pastor Led model
  • Hope Avenue Video– A presentation of the Hope Avenue during the 2019 Regional Celebrations.
  • Church = Hope – An article from Equipper drawing the connection between hope and the Sunday Service.

Gospel Reverb – Favored One w/ Bill Winn

Video Transcript

Favored One with Bill Winn Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Bill Winn, unpack these lectionary passages:

December 6              Isaiah 40:1-11 “Glory Revealed” December 13            Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11 “Good News!” December 20            Luke 1:26-38 “Favored One” December 27            Luke 2:22-40 “The Lord’s Messiah”
If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Favored One with Bill Winn

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Bill Winn, unpack these lectionary passages:

December 6              Isaiah 40:1-11 “Glory Revealed”

December 13            Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11 “Good News!”

December 20            Luke 1:26-38 “Favored One”

December 27            Luke 2:22-40 “The Lord’s Messiah”

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot.
And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Sermon for December 6, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking of Life 3002 | Walking on Glass Floors Cara Garrity Tokyo Tower is not just an iconic landmark in Japan. Rising over 1000 feet in the air it is also one of the best places to view Tokyo’s expansive skyline. But for one tourist it presented a rather unsettling experience. On the tower’s observation deck, there are several large glass windows built into the floor where one can walk while viewing the streets down below. These windows create the feeling of being suspended over Tokyo. Perhaps you can relate to this tourist’s experience. He knew the thick glass was designed to walk on, but he had little peace in doing so. First, he put one foot on the glass and tapped it a few times. Then he mustered up enough courage to place his foot on the window while leaving the other foot on the metal floor. From here he slowly slid his other foot over the glass window. Even with both feet on the glass floor he still bent his knees and extended his arms to distribute his weight. It was in this position with knees shaking and head perspiring that he heard some giggling behind him. He slowly turned around to peer over his shoulder. What he saw was an entire class of local students pointing and giggling as they jumped up and down on another glass window adjacent to his. The difference between the tourist and the students wasn’t the glass they were standing on but their trust that the glass would hold. If you are like me there are days I feel like those giddy students, carefree and laughing in the face of perceived danger. But other days I’m like the tourist, barely able to move for fear of falling. Can you relate? Isaiah could. Listen to this contrast of faithfulness: "All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever." Isaiah 40:6b-8 Like the giggling children, it may be embarrassing to hear Isaiah’s candid observation of our faithlessness. But as we celebrate during the season of Advent we can take comfort in Isaiah’s proclamation that God’s faithfulness has come in Jesus Christ and endures forever. So, even when our faith falters like the tourist, the foundation of God’s grace still holds. We remain securely suspended by grace like walking on glass floors. I’m Cara Garrity, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 • Isaiah 40:1-11 • 2 Peter 3:8-15a • Mark 1:1-8

This week’s theme is Comfort in God’s faithfulness. The call to worship Psalm recounts God’s faithfulness and encourages us to be comforted by God’s words of peace. The readings in Isaiah and 2 Peter both speak words of comfort to people in very uncomfortable situations on the grounds of God’s faithfulness to his promises. The Gospel reading in Mark quotes Isaiah 40 to announce the good news of God’s faithful promises being fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

A Word of Comfort

Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)

There’s a humorous story of a teenager who comes home and tells his dad: “Dad, I have some good news and some bad news about your car. The good news is—the air bags work.” What makes that story humorous is the fact that imbedded in the good news is the bad news. Our text today in Isaiah 40 in some ways begins like that. We hear God saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The pronouncement of comfort is indeed good news, but imbedded in this pronouncement is the fact that there must be something uncomfortable at hand. You don’t need to be comforted by good news if you are not experiencing any bad news.

The words of Isaiah 40 are speaking into a very disturbing deliverance of bad news. This bad news is recorded one chapter prior to our text today. The news in chapter 39 is so bad that the book of Isaiah is often divided at chapter 40 as a “second Isaiah,” and some scholars even attribute the writing of chapters 40 onwards to a different author. Have you ever had news so bad that everything changes so dramatically that you don’t even feel like the same person anymore? We will let the scholars sort out the literary changes, but for you and me, we may need a dramatic switch from bad news to good news like we see from chapter 39 to chapter 40.

But first, let’s deal with the bad news. In chapter 39, Isaiah speaks of a future day when Jerusalem would be destroyed. This took place about a hundred years later, in 586 BC. Ten years before this destruction, Judah was crushed by the Babylonians. The city was captured, and King Jehoiachin and the royal family were taken captive. This began the Babylonian deportation of exiles. A mere decade later, Judah was again attacked by the Babylonians, but this time the invaders utterly destroyed Jerusalem. The walls were pulled down and the temple was burned. There was no one left on the throne and many more Judeans were deported. If you want to get a better sense of the bad news Isaiah is proclaiming, you can read the book of Lamentations, which speaks of the horrors and calamities that took place. After reading Lamentations, you would read Isaiah 40 as the good news that this horrible nightmare would come to an end. God was going to deliver and restore his people.

As we read this good news, we can bring our own bad news to mind. We may not be dealing with such atrocities as recorded in Lamentations, but we too are only one chapter removed from bad news. For some, it seems the entire past year has been a year of bad news. For others, it may be some bad news you received last year or last month. Or perhaps you were given some bad news this week. If you happened to listen to the news or watch it on TV recently, no doubt you were given a heavy dose of bad news in some form or another. Bad news seems to speak to us at every turn. But God chose in chapter 40 not to remain silent and to share his good news of comfort, and he has chosen today to speak to you words of comfort to help you face whatever challenge lies before you.

So, let’s look at this good news recorded in the first 11 verses in chapter 40.

Read Isaiah 40:1-11 NRSV.

The first thing we notice is that God is telling messengers to speak his words of comfort. You could say he is giving the preacher the message for his sermon. And that message hasn’t changed. When one is called to speak God’s words to God’s people, he is called to speak good news. This doesn’t mean that we have to ignore all the bad news and pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does mean we bring a message of comfort and hope in the midst of it. The good news in Isaiah 40 does not dismiss Israel’s sins, which have landed them in exile, but it reminds us that sin is not God’s focus; deliverance and restoration is the focus of his good news.

The text begins with God’s voice of comfort. Then we have three other voices enter the scene to “preach” this message in their own words. Each messenger has something to contribute to the overall message of good news the Lord is delivering. Clearly God wants this message to be heard. He is not content to just say it once. He keeps speaking to us by sending different voices to deliver the same message—like a lover who uses many forms of communication to “speak tenderly” to his beloved who is estranged. It doesn’t matter if it’s a letter, a phone call, a text, a Facebook post, a pigeon, a poem, or a smoke signal. He will keep speaking through chosen instruments until she hears his words wooing her back to him.

As we examine each of these three voices that God speaks through, we tune our ears to hear the voice of the Father speaking to us personally, deliberately, and passionately. The Lord will not rest until the good news of his love for us becomes the final word over all the bad news we are facing. So, let’s examine each of these three voices to hear what he has to say today.

Voice 1: A Royal Revelation and Restoration

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 NRSV)

These verses pick up on some royal themes by using cultural terminology. The imagery used of preparing a highway in the desert probably draws from the Babylonian religion that would build special processional roads where they could display their gods before the people. It was a sort of parade of the gods, you might say. But the highway Isaiah is talking about is to lead away from Babylon across the desert back to the promised land. It’s the Exodus all over again. In this procession we have on display the true God of Israel, who delivered them from Egypt. The phrase “prepare the way of the Lord” also tells us the king is returning to the throne.

This returning Lord and King is depicted as doing two things. First, he engages in a major restoration of the landscape. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” This is metaphorical language and doesn’t mean he is talking about changing Jerusalem’s topography. In using images of making things smooth and level, he is letting us know that this King will set things right. It’s another way to speak of the proud being humbled and the lowly being exalted. Things will be put back into proper balance and the rough edges will be smoothed out. This text is picked up in the Gospels to point to Jesus as the ultimate new king who comes with a royal restoration. Jesus is the king who fixes things the way they should be. Jesus is recorded in his ministry as healing the sick, restoring the blind, feeding the hungry, forgiving sinners and raising the dead. When King Jesus embarks on his royal projects of restoration, it is on a scale best depicted as earth shattering.

The second thing depicted in this passage is that this returning King will bring a Royal Revelation. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” To speak of God’s glory is to speak of his true essence—to see him for who he is. Jesus, the true King, is the one in whom we see the glory of God. In Jesus we come face to face with who God is, and he is glorious indeed, a God full of grace and truth, a God who loves us with his dying breath. This revelation leads us from the bad news of bondage that might indicate that God is against us or means us harm. God is for us even when our sins plunge us into the bondage and exile we deserve. He doesn’t leave us there; he reveals and restores and brings us home.

Voice 2: Unfailing Faithfulness

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8 NRSV)

These verses deliver some wonderful good news that at first may seem a bit insulting. Basically, it says that it is not up to us. Now, if all your efforts have landed you in the horrid situation of exile that Isaiah has proclaimed, this comes as a welcomed announcement. What wonderful news to know that God is not leaving our salvation up to us. You know we would mess that up in a hurry. The poetic language of flowers and grass contrast the frail, fading and fleeting nature of our faith with the sure and unfailing faithfulness of God’s word in Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s promise kept. Jesus as God’s Word is the last Word, and it is never taken back. We can count on it with our whole being, as it “will stand forever.”

Voice 3: It’s Personal

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. (Isaiah 11:9-10 NRSV)

The sweeping pronouncement of good news that “all people shall see” is marvelous to behold. The first two voices speak of this good news with tremendous global and national implications. But this third voice lets us know that we do not get lost in a crowd. This good news is for us personally. You will never hear God say, “It’s not personal, it’s only business!” God is a personal God as Father, Son, and Spirit. His good news is to you as a particular person in relationship with this tri-person God. This final voice moves closer to speak to the people of Jerusalem in personal ways. Listen to this voice, not as a voice to the world or to the nation of Israel, but to you personally:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:11 NRSV)

God chooses in this passage to speak to you tenderly today. He is not coming with a booming voice of judgment or power. He comes as a caring Shepherd full of humility and tenderness. He comes with a gentle touch for those who have tender wounds. He knows you personally and particularly. He knows the bad news you are facing, and he knows the heaviness of your heart. He carries you in his arms to heal and lift you up. Jesus is this Good Shepherd. Jesus is the good news that the Father wants you to hear today. The bad news is coming to an end. The good news has arrived in Jesus. And this is a word of comfort indeed!


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life
  • Have you ever walked on a “glass floor” suspended at a great height? What was this experience like? Do you relate with the tourist in the Speaking of Life video, or the schoolgirls?
  • The video used this experience as an analogy of our faith and God’s faithfulness. How is this analogy helpful?
From the Sermon
  • Is there any bad news you would like to share today to receive a word of comfort and prayer? Perhaps other “voices” in the group can share God’s words of comfort either through scripture or prayer.
  • What stood out to you in the sermon about the first voice of comfort that talked about the King of revelation and restoration?
  • What stood out to you in the sermon about the second voice of comfort that talked about God’s unfailing faithfulness?
  • What stood out to you in the sermon about the third voice of comfort that shows God speaks to us personally?

Sermon for December 13, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking of Life 3003 | Mary’s Restoration Greg Williams The virgin Mary. There are thousands of paintings and sculptures depicting her image. Millions of prayers have been offered to her. Churches and cathedrals have been built in Mary’s name. Choirs have sung soaring choruses to her. At this time of year, people even put images of her on their front lawns.  Yet, for all the adulation heaped upon her, Mary was once viewed by some as immoral with little hope for the future. She was found pregnant before she was officially married to her betrothed husband, Joseph. This was not socially accepted and Mary, no doubt, was the recipient of judgment and disapproval. Through no fault of her own, she was marginalized, and I can only imagine how often she felt hurt and lonely from the rejection and judgment. While visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary was reminded that she was the recipient of the Lord’s favor. The child she carried was the Lord and Savior of all humanity. This good news filled Mary with joy, and in Luke 1:46-55, we read her song: [LOOK DOWN] "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors." Luke 1:46-55 [LOOK UP] Before he was even born, Jesus was rewriting Mary’s story, turning a tale of reproach into a tale of rejoicing. The reality of the baby to be born caused his ostracized pregnant mother to say, “all generations will call me blessed.” No matter the circumstance, from the misperceptions during pregnancy, to apprehension during the flight to Egypt, to fear of loss when Jesus was 12 and stayed behind at the temple, to the horror and shock experienced at the foot of the cross, Jesus was restoring Mary. And when she went through that inexpressible glory of the empty tomb on Easter morning, she was filled with joy, another gift from a one-of-a-kind Son. Arguably, Mary was the first to experience the restoration Christ would bring to all humanity. The next time you hear the name “Mary” or see an image of her, think about the restoration and renewal that Jesus brought her and brings you. He turned her despair into joy, and he can do the same for you. The Advent season is an excellent time to remind ourselves that Jesus’ coming is good news for all, especially those who are poor, broken, and in despair. Let us celebrate the God who can rewrite our story and turn our mourning into rejoicing. I’m Greg Williams, living in his joy and speaking of life.

Psalm 126:1-6 • Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 • John 1:6-8, 19-28

Our theme this week is Jesus brings restoration and joy to all. Our call to worship Psalm praises God for his restoration. The passage in Isaiah 61 focuses on the joy God’s people will feel because of the renewal brought about by the Messiah. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5 that we should “rejoice always” because of Christ. In John 1, John the Baptist bears witness that Jesus has come so that all people might believe.

Restoration Begins Today

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Today is the third Sunday of Advent—a time when Christians celebrate the incarnation—when God became man through Christ, whose birth we celebrate. It is also a time when we look forward to the second coming of our Lord. Christmas is just around the corner, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the holiday are everywhere. Houses and buildings sparkle with brilliant lights. People are busy buying gifts and making plans to spend time with family and friends. Christmas carols populate the soundtrack of our day, and it seems like folks go out of their way to be nice to each other. It is like Christmas brings out the best in many of us.

At the same time, many people struggle during this time of year. For some, Christmas brings despair. Not everyone has the resources to purchase gifts, so this season brings their lack into sharp contrast. Some people have experienced loss, and Christmas reminds them of a deceased loved one. Others may not have the relationships they would like, and this season makes them feel lonely and isolated. Let us not forget the people in our community who may feel alienated because they do not celebrate Christmas. What does the coming of Christ mean for all our brothers and sisters who struggle during the Christmas season? Is the coming of Christ good news for them?

In the midst of my excitement and joy in celebrating Christ, I must admit that my natural tendency is to ignore these questions. If I am honest, part of me does not want to think about sad things. I just want to focus on the pretty lights and the smell of pine. I just want to sing Christmas songs and watch It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. So, I avert my eyes from those in despair and cover my ears so I cannot hear their cries. Is this what it means to celebrate Advent—to focus on the good and ignore the bad? Of course not! I believe that Advent should cause us to seek those who are struggling. This season should compel us to reach out to those pushed to the margins. Let us look to the Word to see what the Lord says. Here is the text of the day:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. (Isaiah 61:1-4)

“For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.” I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations. (Isaiah 61:8-11)

In this beautiful passage, Isaiah the prophet reported the words of the Messiah given to a people returning from exile. The people did not know what the future held. Their way of life had been lost and they lost touch with their identity. They believed they had lost everything. They were a people overwhelmed by poverty, brokenness, and despair. In the midst of this, Isaiah wrote a message of hope to his audience. He let them know that the Messiah, the Anointed One of the Lord, would fix everything that was broken. God would not overlook or ignore their suffering, and one day he would dispel their despair. The Messiah’s restoration would be personal and complete. God would not only restore his people collectively, but he would restore them individually, no matter their state. He would leave nothing undone.

Isaiah’s message must have been a great comfort to his audience. It no doubt gave them hope, but I can imagine it also raised some questions. When I am suffering, it is comforting to know that at some point my pain will end, but it is better if I know when my suffering will end. I want to know how long I must endure. When I have a headache, I reach for the fast-acting pills. I do not want the drug that starts working in an hour. I want the medicine that will ease my pain as quickly as possible. Those who originally heard Isaiah’s message likely felt the same way. They wanted their pain and alienation to end. The message about the Messiah was good news, but they wanted to know when their poverty, brokenness, and despair would cease.

More than half a millennium later, a young teacher went into the synagogue in Nazareth. He took the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, stood, and in a clear voice he recited the first two verses of the passage we just read. He expertly wove in another passage from Isaiah to deepen his message. Like a master orator, the young rabbi sat down and paused. The crowd was riveted, with every eye on the speaker. These were the descendants of Isaiah’s audience and were used to empty sermons that did more for the speaker than for the people. They were used to empty words and broken promises. They were used to men claiming to be the shining redeemer of Israel then tarnishing over time. They were used to restoration that never felt complete. These were the ones who still carried a bit of the poverty, brokenness, and despair of their ancestors. But this rabbi was different, and the crowd sat on the edge of their seats. In words that blended confidence and compassion, the rabbi said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This account of an event early in the ministry of Jesus was captured in Luke 4:16-21. Luke lets us know that at long last there was an answer to the question, “How long?” That day in Nazareth, Jesus declared that he was the beginning of the end of poverty. He was the beginning of the end of brokenness. He was the beginning of the end of captivity and slavery. He was the beginning of a new era of grace. And this new beginning started today!

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection brought restoration not only for Israel, but for all humanity, and Jesus brings restoration to us today. This is good news for humanity, and it is good news for us individually. In one way or another, we are all poor, broken, and with reason to despair. We all suffer. We are all in need of restoration and redemption. At one point or another, we have all cried out, “Lord, how long?” Suffering is part of the human condition. Christians—those who have experienced the newness of life that can only be found in Jesus—should therefore be filled with compassion. Our hearts should turn towards those hurting in our midst. We should not avert our eyes, cover our ears, and stay silent. Since we have been restored in Christ, we should be the first to proclaim that Jesus has come to give us a new beginning, and there is not a hurt he cannot heal. There is no one lost that he cannot find, and nothing broken that he cannot fix.

That is not to say that once we start following Christ, our lives become easier. Jesus is not a magic wand that makes our problems go away. Following Jesus does not change our circumstances; it changes us. Jesus causes us to see the world differently — we see the world through the lens of the life-giving cross. We see ourselves as loved and accepted by God, and we see others as loved and accepted by God. This enables us to love others because they are made in God’s image. We have a purpose in Christ and work in which to participate by the Holy Spirit. Because of Christ, we can find hope, peace, joy, and love in any circumstance.

And, for Christ’s sake, we do not want to keep this good news to ourselves. We should want to share it with others. How can we do this? Verse three of Isaiah 61 says this of the Messiah:

[Messiah will] provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61:3)

Here, Isaiah provides us with directions leading to participating in Jesus’ work to restore and redeem.

“Provide for those who grieve in Zion…” Jesus tangibly provides for those who grieve. As a result, Christians should also give their time, talent, and treasure to those in need, and our giving should similarly be tangible and appropriate. Too often, we only pray for those who suffer when we should provide while we pray. Jesus met the immediate needs of people—like healing the sick and infirmed—while he cared for them spiritually. Another mistake Christians often make is to provide for those who are struggling with what they believe is needed instead of what the people actually need. We need to engage the people in our community and find out from them how we can be a blessing. This can be done directly with people in need through conversations or by forming relationships with charities and community-based organizations who specialize in serving a particular people group. One way or another, our giving should be grounded in relationship.

“…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes…” When we suffer, our pain often distorts how we see the world. We can become preoccupied with our situation and not fully present in our life. If we are not careful, we can begin to identify ourselves by our pain. For example, our momentary loneliness can easily turn into the narrative that we are unloved. This is why Jesus explicitly taught us that our identity is not rooted in pain, but in the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a message that needs to be shared with those who are suffering. We need to tell them that they are not defined by their circumstances but by God’s love. Their identity is not the problem; they are made in the image of God. However, in order to be credible, we need to believe this truth before we share it with others. We need to guard against our own prejudices and biases. We have to see past people’s problems and predicaments and see their inherent value and worthiness of respect because they are God’s child.

“… the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” This passage in Isaiah teaches us that we should invite those who suffer to participate in opportunities of joy and praise. For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate source of joy and the origin of praise. Therefore, we should invite others to celebrate and experience Christ with us. Jesus did not only save us, he invited us into his life. He created space for us so we can be with him for all eternity. Similarly, we should invite those who suffer into our homes, celebration meetings, outreach activities, and other events that allow them to experience the joy that is in Jesus.

As we continue to celebrate Advent, let us remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all, including the poor, the broken, and those mired in despair. No matter the situation, Jesus is a new beginning. While the sights, sounds, and smells of this season are wonderful and should be enjoyed, our focus should be on Christ and the message of hope he brings to all humanity. We need to spread the Word that we do not have to wait for renewal. We do not have to wait for new life. Jesus has come to us, and the end of all suffering begins today.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • What does restoration mean to you?
  • Why did God have to restore humanity?
  • In what way did God restore Mary?
  • Why do you think we are tempted to turn away from those who are suffering?
  • What more can we do to share the gospel with those who are poor, broken, and in despair?

Sermon for December 20, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking of Life 3004 | Favored by God Heber Ticas I remember teaching my son how to ride a bike without training wheels. He was scared, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do it. I mean, there was some risk of falling, right? And if he didn’t use the brakes, he could run into something. But I knew he was ready, and I ran alongside that bike until he was steady. He knew I wouldn’t let go, and I knew that he could handle it. This memory makes me think of how Mary, the mother of Jesus, must have felt when the angel Gabriel told her that she was going to become pregnant with God’s Son. Let’s take a look: In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. Luke 1:26-31 Mary was just a teenager. She probably didn’t feel ready for this, especially when being pregnant before marriage meant being shamed or even worse, killed. But God was moving Mary from what she thought she was, a poor unmarried girl, to what she was capable of. This is what he does for each one of us. Like us, Mary needed some reassurance. She asked how a pregnancy would be possible, but ultimately, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV). Even though she wasn’t sure she could handle it, God, through Gabriel, said she could. She believed the angel’s word that “no word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37, NIV), and she knew God would be with her. In the same way my son trusted my judgment when I said he was ready to ride a bike without training wheels, Mary trusted that God knew her—all of the good and all of the bad—and believed in her. Because God believed she could handle it, Mary believed, too. When God asks us to participate in sharing his love through our unique gifting, he already knows we’re capable of handling it, and his presence is promised because “no word from God will ever fail.” As you move through the world and share God’s love, may you know that the infinite Divine presence believes you can handle it and will enable you to do it. I’m Heber Ticas, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 • 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16 • Romans 16:25-27 • Luke 1:26-38

The theme this week is God with us, which reminds us that we are never alone. The Psalm 89 call to worship confirms God’s abiding presence with us, as it was with David. In 2 Samuel we read the story of David’s desire to build God a house, and God’s correction to him through the prophet Nathan that “I [God] have been with you wherever you went.” Romans 16 speaks of God’s strengthening and the revelation of the mystery—we are not alone! Last, our sermon text from Luke tells the story of the angel Gabriel breaking the news to Mary that she would bear Jesus, if she were willing, with the affirmation that God would “overshadow” her and be with her every step of the way.

God With Us: Dangerous Participation

Luke 1:26-38

As we move through the season of Advent, one of the most loved scripture passages is where the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son, Jesus. Many of us might wonder how we would have responded. Most of us have seen Christmas pageants with reenactments: Mary with the blue scarf draped over her head and shoulders, eyes downcast; the angel Gabriel in a white sheet with the gold tinsel halo. These images may make us feel good; they are familiar, but they lack the background that shows how disruptive God is in his quest to show love to all humanity. Let’s review the passage first, and then we’ll discuss the dangerous participation Mary was asked to play a part in.

Read (or have someone read) Luke 1:26-38. (For the sermon, we will use the NRSV.)

What can we observe about the text?

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1:26-30 NRSV)

Favor and fear

The angel tells Mary she has “found favor with God,” then he follows that up with “Don’t be afraid,” and then again emphasizes that she is a “favored one.” Normally when we think of finding favor, we usually don’t equate that with also being fearful. Perhaps there are two reasons the angel told Mary not to be afraid. One is evident, the other is cultural.

The evident reason is because she is being addressed by an angel who is bringing her a message from God. That’s enough to make anyone a bit fearful. Whenever a supernatural being shows up, people are naturally apprehensive. What is going on here? Is this a real angel? Why is he addressing me? What does he mean, I’m favored?

 

Let’s also consider the cultural context of the times: a) Mary was not yet married but betrothed, and we’ve heard before that in the ancient Jewish culture, an unwed, pregnant woman could be divorced (and therefore shunned) or worse, stoned. Mary doesn’t know yet that she will become pregnant, but the command “Don’t be afraid” may point toward what the angel will soon say.

There are differences of opinion about betrothal. Some scholars claim that betrothed couples were allowed to have sexual relations prior to the marriage ceremony and therefore Mary’s pregnancy was not as scandalous as some portray. However, the traditional view is that during the time of Christ, betrothal was a time of preparation and sexual intimacy was not allowed during this time. Therefore, Gabriel knew his next words would give Mary much cause to be fearful—of Joseph’s reaction, her parent’s reaction, and public reaction.

At this point, Mary didn’t know that she would become pregnant right away. Nor did she know that God would communicate with Joseph through a dream. She didn’t even know whether Joseph would continue to be in the picture. Mary had to trust that God would see her through. And God did.

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:31-35 NRSV)

Mary was unsure about the logistics of how this pregnancy would happen. It’s interesting to note that the same wording for “overshadow” was used in the account of the Transfiguration when it talks about the cloud from which the voice came saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35, NRSV). This affirms the presence of God with Mary. She wasn’t going to do this by herself.

And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:36-37 NRSV)

Two observations here: First, Mary, you are not alone in this divine intervention. God also intervened with Elizabeth—hear her story, rejoice together. And second, know that when you are participating in what God is doing on this earth, nothing is impossible. This doesn’t mean that it’s not difficult, but God with us enables us to do that which we thought we could not do. Any woman who has ever given birth can attest to that.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:38 NRSV)

In many Christmas pageants, this response from Mary is often spoken in a passive voice, as if Mary was being forced to do something she did not want to do—as if she had no choice in the matter. We always have a choice whether or not we participate with God, and Mary was no different. I like to think of her saying this verse with empowerment and an attitude of “Bring it on.” “If this is going to save our people, then let’s get started!” Mary recognized that being chosen to bear God’s Son was disruptive to the normal power structures of her culture—it went against what human beings would typically do.

Human beings would likely choose a wealthy family to bear God’s Son; God chose a poor, unwed peasant girl. This is evidence of God’s kingdom disrupting or opposing typical human systems, and if we look closely, the Bible is filled with proof of God’s great love for those who are marginalized and often thought of as “less than” by other people. Mary’s belief in God’s abiding presence with her gave her the courage she needed to tell Joseph and to go ahead with bearing God’s Son even though she didn’t know how God was going to work out the details. Mary was not a doormat; she chose to participate with God in this adventure, despite the uncertainty she had, because she knew God was with her.

Application:

  • Being “favored by God” doesn’t mean it will be easy. Though we think about Mary in terms of the Christmas pageants we’ve seen, the reality she lived was not easy. Participating with God in his work on earth isn’t always simple. It means we often have to endure being misunderstood, and do so with patience and humility, choosing to love above all else. Mary’s example, however, shows us that God’s presence will “overshadow” us, accompanying us every step of the way.
  • Nothing is impossible with God. When we are participating with God, we are not limited by our human abilities. God provides the means for us to accomplish what needs to be done. As the Speaking of Life video showed, God doesn’t ask us to participate in anything that he won’t help us with. We can count on him to be with us every step of the way.
  • God’s kingdom disrupts our usual human systems of power, and this should make us rethink whom we choose to admire or honor. Mary had no power, but God chose her to bear Jesus. He could have chosen the powerful of the world, but God was showing us that he thinks differently than we do about what’s important (Isaiah 55:8-9). God chooses to honor those that we might not consider honoring, and this should make us think about our own biases in the ways we treat people, especially those who are marginalized because of race, gender, economic status, or sexual matters. How can we express God’s love and affirmation to them?

As we move through this Advent season, let’s remember that we love and serve a God who is always with us and will always “overshadow” us, helping us to do things that we may think are impossible, or at least beyond our skills. At the same time, let’s rethink how we interact with those who might feel marginalized, like Mary. Our God is actively disrupting human systems of oppression that keep people from seeing their value as beloved children of God. May we offer ourselves and others this gift of knowing who we are in Christ, and helping them see that through Jesus, God came to dwell with us all.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • In the Speaking of Life video, it talks about a father teaching his son how to ride a bike. He knew his son could handle it, and he was going to be with him to help. What similar experiences have you had where you knew someone was ready for a particular skill or job, but they weren’t sure of themselves? Or, have you been that unsure person who needed the help of someone else to give you that confidence? What do you think gives people the confidence to move forward?
  • Have you considered Mary’s courage in telling Joseph she was pregnant with God’s Son, knowing he would assume the worst of her? Can you think of an experience where you had to share with someone a hard truth, and you weren’t sure how they would handle it or if they would think less of you? If so, tell us about it. What practices can help us be more comfortable with speaking what’s true about ourselves even if it doesn’t meet others’ expectations?
  • Our culture tends to think that being “favored” means living without struggle (i.e., living a charmed life). Are there other biblical examples of people who experienced God’s favor yet encountered struggle or difficulty? What can we learn about God’s faithfulness and presence from their stories?
  • Throughout the Bible, God tends to oppose or disrupt humanity’s typical systems of power. Jesus showed abundant evidence of this during his time on earth. Can you think of examples where Jesus defied the typical cultural expectations by showing respect and love for people the culture decided were inferior and not valuable? How can we continue to show respect and love for people who are marginalized in our society today?
 For reference: https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/virginmary_1.shtml http://www.alanrudnick.org/2009/12/18/marys-baby-bump-a-divine-scandal/

Sermon for December 27, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking of Life 3005 | The Twist Ending Greg Williams There are almost 7000 movies on Netflix. And that’s only one of the dozen or so streaming services available. Right now, we are awash in stories, narratives, and characters. As human beings, we’ve always loved stories, and technology transforms our living rooms into home theaters.   Personally, I enjoy movies that make me think, and allow me to be the ride along detective. The twist ending is a favorite device these days. That last act/scene where the bad guy turns out to be the good guy or the poor character turns out to be royalty. The move included an avalanche of scenes that gave clues you simply didn’t see. The whole story, through all it’s twists and turns, comes together in a new light suddenly. You may not have seen it coming, but when the twist comes it makes sense of everything else. Much of Paul’s writing explains the twist ending of the gospel—which is Jesus. Paul connects the story of Jesus with the story of Israel and the rest of the world, showing how the gospel ties everything else together. Look at Galatians 4: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. Galatians 4:4-5 (NRSV) The fullness of time. The long story of Israel — God setting one nation apart, then one family line, then one family, then one person who represents all of humanity. Jesus didn’t come because the law failed. He didn’t scrap all that had gone before to start a new story, he completed the story begun in Adam and Eve. In fact, the real beginning isn’t Genesis, it’s John 1, where we see that Jesus, the Father and Spirit have always existed in perfect relationship. John tells us that Jesus became flesh to enter the story at the appointed time. He is the twist ending that makes history—his story—make sense. Do we recognize Jesus as the twist ending for us? Is that part of the story that was missing in your life and mine that makes everything come together? Think of those places where Jesus is described as the capstone or cornerstone—not the stone that everything stands on, but the piece that makes all the others come together, makes everything neatly fit into place. He completes not only your story, and mine, but the grand narrative of all of humanity—all the wars and dynasties and joy and pain in all of history. Jesus is not the ghost in the machine who comes from nowhere, but the twist ending the story was building to all along. And it is good news. I am Greg Williams, Speaking of the good news of Life.

Psalm 148:1-14 • Isaiah 61:10–62:3 • Galatians 4:4-7 • Luke 2:22-40

The theme for this week hope in the God who is always in control. The call to worship Psalm encourages the whole world, from the smallest creatures to the mountains, to ring with praise for God who is over all. Isaiah 61 gives us a gorgeous picture of God’s bride, Israel, prepared for his love. Galatians 4 tells about the over-arching narrative of hope—God’s plan through the law and now the gospel. Our sermon is from Luke 2, the story of Simeon who blessed the newborn Jesus. He connects this baby into the story of hope that had been centuries in the making.

Advent Also Starring: Simeon and Anna

Luke 2:22-40 ESV

Read, or have someone read, Luke 2:22-40 ESV.

We are introduced to two new characters in this story of Jesus’ birth—Simeon and Anna. Let’s start with Simeon.

From the context, we determine Simeon was an older man whose whole life has been one long wait. We surmise that his life was dedicated to waiting a fulfillment of the promise that their God loved them, was faithful to them, and would one day bring his kingdom to their door. At one point in his life, Simeon heard a promise and felt the Spirit tell him that he will see the Messiah before the end of his life.

Let’s note Luke’s descriptors of Simeon:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  And he came in the Spirit into the temple… (Luke 2:25-27 ESV)

Simeon was devout—not just someone who did religious activities just because it was expected of him. He was righteous and patient—waiting, we are told, for the consolation of Israel, the Messiah.

As with most religious communities, there was plenty of “going through the motions” practiced by many. There were plenty of people who went to the temple because that was what they always did, and no doubt there were a number of priests who were just doing their job because they didn’t know how to do any other job.

But not Simeon. Simeon not only spoke the right words, but he believed them. He wasn’t one to just let his actions define his relationship with God, but he sought and deepened that relationship in his own heart.

In the Christmas story as Luke tells it, those who understood were those who paid attention. Mary was open to the angel’s announcement, the wise men paid attention to their dreams, Elizabeth was aware when John kicked in her womb. Here we see Simeon as someone who was paying attention, someone who was watching and waiting.

Do we do that? Are we watching and waiting for the Lord to appear? Are we like Simeon, watching for when he will appear day after day?

Another detail we have to pay attention to here:

A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. (Luke 2:24 ESV)

This was the offering Joseph and Mary brought for the purification of Mary to restore her to the temple life after giving birth. The offering was to be a lamb, which was expensive. Those who were lower class like Mary and Joseph could come with a turtledove (Lev. 12.8). They were probably not trying to draw attention to themselves and their small offering, but Simeon calls them out.

It’s always a temptation for pastors to look for the big tithers in the group. It’s been a problem all through church history that pastoral attention seems to come easily when you put a lot of money in the plate. Simeon is above that, and he walks to the one of the poor couples to bless their child personally. Let’s pick up the story:

And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:27-32 ESV)

This is Simeon’s blessing. He uses a strange term for Lord in this context, not the term that is usually used. His word for Lord is much more like master, like slave master—someone who has complete control over his life. The wording here actually connotes a special duty that slaves had, which was probably not a desired one. The servant had to stay up all night watching for a special star to rise. When it finally did, he told his master, and the master then would then discharge him from the task. Or as Simeon puts it—let him depart in peace.

And that’s the moment here. He knows his duty is fulfilled, the knows he has done his part to keep faithful until deliverance came, until the star rose. Contrast that with Zechariah, who says to the angel, in effect: “What are you doing here!? You’re not supposed to be here!” Simeon is the symbol of the faith of Israel preparing the way and then giving center stage to the faith of Christ. Now let us depart, now let us get out of your way. For Simeon, as old as he is, there is the double meaning of death here. “My life is fulfilled, I’ve seen all I ever need to see, now I can die in peace.”

So often through Jesus’ life, we see people who are questioning the way he’s going about things. They are asking him, yeah, but when are you going to bring back the kingdom? Yeah, but when are you going to plow our enemies into the dirt and take your throne? We even have Peter telling him he won’t die—that’s not how it works, Jesus! In contrast we have Simeon, a man who was paying attention, who is overjoyed to see God’s plan falling into place. Are we paying close enough attention to see when God’s deliverance comes along? To see when and how God’s blessing comes along and to stop and be thankful then and there?

God doesn’t always give us what we want, but he does give us what we need. So often God’s deliverance and blessing comes to us in the strangest packaging—in something more original and engaging than we could have ever imagined.

Let’s look at the rest of this exchange…

 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:33-35 ESV)

This is intense, and it’s not the words Mary might have expected. It’s not the kind of gauzy, sentimental comfort we associate with Christmas. He doesn’t stay, “He’s gonna have a real nice life and make you darn proud to be a momma.” He says, “This is the real thing and it’s not going to be easy for anyone.” This sets the tone for all of Jesus’ life—the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It was no picnic.

That’s what is interesting about the idea that Jesus was just a good teacher or a comforting good luck charm. If so, he wasn’t very good at it. If he was just supposed to be gentle Jesus meek and mild, he pretty much failed at that. He got in trouble for questioning authorities, he challenged the comfortable, he hit the main nerve over and over. Jesus came into the real world, where people go hungry so they can feed their kids, where people get evicted and have to sleep in the cold. This prophecy, and the life of Jesus that followed, was strong, real-world medicine.

When people talk about how human beings are basically good, that we need to embrace our own goodness and dig deep down to the Christmas spirit, etc., we ought to wonder how realistic they are. Am I the only one around here who needs a savior? Am I the only one who lives in the harsh, selfish world that needs real redemption? We don’t need some guy who lays out feel-good advice—keep hoping, keeping trying, etc.?

This prophecy over Jesus is intense. Simeon is saying people will rise and fall, kingdoms will rise and fall, history itself will be sliced in half because of this baby you hold in your arms. He has come to bring peace, for sure, but war will result as well. There will be struggle, and a sword will pierce your soul as well, momma.

Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ shows the relationship between Jesus and his mother in detail. I don’t often think of that relationship; but imagine the pain of being a mother to watch all that Jesus had to go through. John tells us that she watched him be crucified right in front of her.

So Simeon’s words in this intense moment were no flowery, sugary promises. They are a prophecy of a very real and painful future, but also of a final victory.

Now we come to Anna:

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin,  and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.  She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.  And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 ESV)

Typical of Luke’s writing, we see the male character matched with a female character. She represents the female side of the waiting and watching that Simeon represents here. Like Simeon, she is someone who walks in faith that God will do what he says he will do.

It says here she was from the tribe of Asher, which is one of the “lost” ten tribes of Israel that had been carried off by Assyria. It’s an interesting detail for Luke to include. Not only is he bringing in the religious establishment, not only is he bringing in the poor and unimportant, not only is he bringing in the young and the elderly, he is bringing in these lost tribes as well. God made sure that everyone was represented at the birth of Jesus. Our manger scenes at home are far too small.

Anna had been a lifelong widow, basically, probably from the time she was a late teenager/early adult. She is, as Elizabeth is, a representation of God’s gift to barren women. Anna can also be rendered “Hannah” from the original language—like the mother of Samuel the prophet who had been without a child her whole life. Anna is also someone who is waiting, and she spends much of her life alone doing so. She is the lost one, the outlier who is here included in the most important story of all. Everything had been taken from her in so many ways—her marriage, the ability to have children, and here we see her “coming up at that very hour.” Here we see her caught up by God into his purposes, to be one of the first evangelists of the gospel.

That is the story here. Of those who were watching and waiting, they finally saw what they were waiting for come to fruition. There are plenty of those in the story who weren’t watching and waiting at all—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds—who were also brought into the story. Through the wonder on their faces and the joy in their hearts, and sometimes the sheer confusion they express, we can know that—as usual—God’s solution is more creative and surprising and beautiful than anything we can come up with.

So we have our manger scene, and around it we have another cast of characters. The prophets, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Herod the Great, and Simeon and Anna tell us that the gospel is for everyone—from the most wealthy and sophisticated to the most forgotten and unimportant. And we all have each of them within us. If the manger scene were to be fully completed, it wouldn’t fit on the mantle, or in the room, or in the house, or in the city. The whole world is the manger scene, the whole world changed with the birth of a child born to nobodies from nowhere in a backroom.

What do we learn from our friends, Simeon and Anna?

  • Watching and waiting—both of these folks lived in expectancy of God’s action and goodness. Theirs was a lifestyle of waiting for the Messiah to come, continually reminding the community that God is good, and God delivers. Do we live that way? Waiting on God’s action in the world? Or do we just live in our own strength and the world’s rules—just happen to do something different with our Sunday mornings?
  • Depart in peace—Simeon saw for only a moment. Simeon probably died soon after. He didn’t have to see the whole thing, just a glimmer of God’s life, and that was enough. Are we content to be part of that? To join in God’s work if only for a moment? We live in such a gimme gimme world, a culture that wants everything and wants it now. Could we ever live with Simeon’s peace: to get to see maybe just a moment of joy, a moment of love, a moment of beauty and let that feed our soul?
  • Anna who was always in the temple—Is there someone in your life who is like an Anna? Someone who might be out of touch with culture and trends, but lives instead with a quiet, simple faith? This is a person to listen to. Even though our fast-paced world may not have time for them, God has time for them. Even though we may think of them as unimportant, God thinks of them as central to the picture.

The title of this message is “Advent also starring…” These are some supporting roles to the greatest story ever told. Advent also stars you —what will your role be?


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life: “Spoiler Alert: Jesus.”
  • What’s your favorite twist ending? Soylent Green? The Sixth Sense? The Good Place? Does the twist make the story come together?
  • Have you ever thought of Jesus this way? How does he make the story come together?
  • How does Jesus make your story come together? How does he make the human story come together?
Questions for sermon— “Advent Also Starring: Simeon and Anna”
  • Have you ever had to wait a really long time for something? Does that help you empathize with Simeon and Anna?
  • Simeon and Anna played one small part in the great story of redemption. Have you played your part? Have you experienced that connection with the greater story of the gospel?
  • Read Luke 2:35. Simeon says this ominous phrase: “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” What do you make of that? Why would Jesus, God’s son and the promised Messiah, have a life marked by pain and “piercing”?
Quote to ponder: “Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one's thoughts.” —Elisabeth Elliot